Posts Tagged canon

The influence of the canon

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


The influence of the canon

The extent to which curriculum content should focus on the teaching of literature that has been officially acknowledged for its ‘greatness’, such as from a recognised list, or ‘canon’ of work is a prominent area of contention relating to the content of English curriculum, whether framed as a factor in finding a balance in content, or as a means for enculturation that will ‘regulate’ the populace. Mathew Arnold famously argued that we could escape our difficulties by pursuing “culture”: that as a society we could pursue “total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1869, Preface). Such a pursuit, however, demands that choices be made about what constitutes the body of works that exhibit ‘the best which has been thought and said’, and the development of such a canon involves people or groups exercising their power and authority in determining what is worth reading and knowing about. While the term ‘canon’ was originally used to refer to books that had officially been chosen by the Church for inclusion in the Bible, the source of authority for a ‘literary canon’ is not as clear-cut. As Eagleton puts it, “the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature’, has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time” (1983, p.11).

Notable attempts to create literary canons (for example, Bloom, 1994) have been criticised for their narrowness, particularly their lack of contributions by and representation of the perspectives of the lower classes, women and non-white authors (Maybin, 2000). Attempts to come to terms with the limitations of a canon are reflected in the way in which the term ‘literary canon’ is often further qualified as being a ‘western literary canon’, to acknowledge the deliberate lack of cultural diversity in a list that is intended to be representative of the keys ideas and attitudes in western (often English) history. In addition to criticisms that the canon is too culturally exclusive, the confinement of the canon to traditional textual forms (in particular to written works of fiction, drama and poetry) has also been met with disapproval from those who value a wider variety of textual forms. With the rise of electronic media over the past few decades and the growing acceptance of multiliteracies in the English classroom, the traditional composition of the canon as being exclusively of printed material has also been challenged.

It is for these reasons that, in his overview of the concept of the canon, Pope (2002) describes the “assumption or assertion that ‘the canon’ (singular and definitive) has always simply been ‘there’, a universal and timeless entity, is a convenient but misleading myth” (p.187). Prescribed reading lists, however, continue to feature works from the western literary canon in the English curriculum both in Australia and abroad. In his discussion of the prescribed reading list in the U.K. National Curriculum for English, Benton describes how “school English has been corseted in a National Curriculum which has no qualms about spelling out who it regards as the ‘major’ and ‘high quality’ authors worthy of study” (2000, p.269). This is despite long standing recognition that “any definition of literary heritage in terms of specific books or authors distorts the cultural significance of a literary tradition by failing to recognise that what the Great Books offer is a continuing dialogue on the moral and philosophical questions central to the culture itself” and the proposition that “contemporary thought is of foremost importance” (Applebee, 1974, pp.247-8)

In her account of the historical construction of and contemporary challenges to the canon, Maybin (2000) explains the impact of the Leavisite model on extending the canon to the prose novel, which, until Leavis’ publication of The Great Tradition (1948), had “held a rather tenuous place in the literary heritage, in comparison with poetry and drama” (p.185). Although a tracking of English curriculum theory since the rise of Leavisite literary criticism reveals a move away from philosophies that treat literary texts as “independent, self-contained objects, with a fixed meaning and literary essence waiting to be discovered by the skilful reader”, Maybin argues that “The [Leavisites] most significant contributions to the development of the subject were their establishment of a canon that has influenced syllabuses ever since, and a form of literary criticism that has become the chief method for studying literature in school and university” (2000, p.185). However, while acknowledgement of the novel as a valid literary form and the use of literary criticism might persist in the academic disciplines this legacy must be reconciled with knowledge about the need for curriculum to operate as what Applebee (1996) calls culturally significant ‘domains of conversation’. That is, when curriculum is viewed as a process of conversation between the individual and various traditions of knowing, then potential fields of activity (such as literary criticism) must “foster students’ entry into living traditions of knowledge-in-action rather than static traditions of knowledge-out-of-context” (Applebee, 1996, p.5). This ‘knowledge-in-action’ requires more than an adoption of respect for the prose novel and methods of literary criticism; because knowledge-in-action requires ‘tacit knowledge’, students must be empowered to become involved with the traditions themselves, to speak back to them, and to become participants in the formation of discourse.

Much work has been done on the relationship between knowledge and power, and the ways in which the sanctioning of ‘official’ knowledge has led to the endorsement and perpetuation of dominant discourses in education and society. Poststructuralist theorists (see for example Foucault 1969) as well as sociologists of education (see for example Apple, 1997; Teese, 2000) have argued that social oppression is perpetuated through the silencing of ‘other’ knowledge and the limitations placed on people’s capacity to explore multiple understandings of mainstream knowledge. Foucault’s call to “question those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (Foucault, 1969) invites an exploration of the ‘familiar groupings’ that are found not only in the actual 1999 HSC English syllabus (in terms of its rationale, objectives and outcomes), but also in the related curriculum materials including the prescribed text list.

While debates about which texts should be considered for inclusion in a literary canon will continue to take place, discussion of the way in which these texts are then treated as part of an English curriculum should be framed by more explicit thinking about the necessary and desired functions of schooling, such as those identified by Hunter (1993) earlier in this thesis. While the cultural-heritage function of schooling, for example, may call for young people to be introduced to the ways of thinking and acting that have existed and been valued over time, the pastoral function of schooling also calls for caring and humane environments in school in which to grow and develop (which may imply in this case the use of texts from children’s own experience, and which they will enjoy), and the function of developing individual expression requires schooling to provide a context in which individuals can learn to explore, develop, and express their personal goals and aspirations (which may not relate to their cultural heritage).

Attention must be paid to this diverse range of functions when considering the selection of texts for study in the English classroom, in order that judgements about ‘worthy’ or ‘valuable’ texts are closely linked to visions of the type of schooling we are aiming to provide, rather than decontextualised arguments about the nature or value of the literary canon itself. It is also essential to consider the relationship between content and pedagogy – while texts from the canon might provide students with a means to access ‘cultural heritage’ this is not necessarily to say that their study of canonical (or any other) texts should be uncritical. In the following section of this chapter I discuss the significance of critical literacy pedagogy, and explore some of the ways in which it has been conflated with ideas about postmodernism and ‘the aesthetic’.



Apple, M. W. (1997). Official Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Applebee, A. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arnold, M. (1869). Culture and anarchy.

Benton, M. (2000). Canons ancient and modern: The texts we teach. Educational Review, 52(3), 269-277.

Bloom, H. (1994). The Western Canon: The books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M. (1969). The archaeology of knowledge (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). London: Tavistock Publications.

Hunter, I. (1993). The pastoral bureaucracy: Towards a less principled understanding of state schooling. In D. Meredyth & D. Tyler (Eds.), Child and citizen: Genealogies of schooling and subjectivity. Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies.

Leavis, F. R. (1948). The great tradition. London: Chatto & Windus.

Maybin, J. (2000). The canon: Historical construction and contemporary challenges. In J. Davison & J. Moss (Eds.), Issues in English Teaching. London: Routledge.

Pope, R. (2002). The English Studies Book (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

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Returning and some thoughts on the canon

Hello all; apologies for my patchy appearances in the bloggosphere and twittersphere lately.  After a short trip to San Francisco over the holidays (which I would like to return to with some thoughts on at a later date) I am home, back at school, and about to get stuck into the hardest two months ever, probably, in my life – finishing my PhD thesis.

I was working on this today, adding to my ‘Background’ chapter with some more thoughts on the influence of the canon in English curriculum.  In doing so I came across an article by Anne Waldron Neumann, “Should You Read Shakespeare?” (in Meanjin v.56, no.1, 1997: 17-25).  It was an enjoyable read, covering all of the arguments for and against bothering to read Shakespeare.  In particular I enjoyed the opening lines:

‘Should I read Shakespeare?’ So you probably ask yourself each morning as you stare at the mirror, toothbrush in hand.  Or, if you do not, many older and possibly wiser heads are asking for you: ‘Should you read Shakespeare?’

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